It’s the story of a berry which is often mistaken for the story of a bean.
Mental associations are funny things. I grew up in tea country, which unarguably is the most beautiful type of farmland there is. However as life would have it I found myself married to a man from coffee country. And though I have been to the family’s coffee farm for years, I never really found beauty in it. It could never measure up to my tea hill memories. Undulating mounds of nature. So perfect it looks like God carpeted the hills in picture perfect greenery. Each ridge worthy of a postcard.
Its taken thirteen years for me to find the beauty of the coffee farm and true to form, it had to be told to me. Coffee unlike tea is a finicky shrub. A heartless crop. It needs constant care, regular attention, and despite all that will only provide a proper harvest once a year.
Tea on the other hand is content, secure in itself, its like a 60 year old grandmother who knows her beauty is innate, and those surrounding her will always be back for the serenity she offers. People know she is a beautiful soul. She’s always been admired after all and she’s not vain about it, its just the way it is. That’s Tea.
Coffee on the other hand is like a teenager, gangly, lopsided, out of sorts. Its nature is temperamental, demanding, quicksilver, haughty but within lies hidden flashes of sparkling beauty which you will only see if you can get past its drama and go looking for it.
I found that beauty this week. Coffees’ hidden promise and I learned its story.
It all starts with the ripening of the berry you see. And this is perhaps what I always had wrong. As the consumer in the coffee shop I’ve been so fixated on the coffee I recognise, in the form of a bean that this story seemed odd. But that is where the beauty all begins.
In this part of the world, 25 miles south of the equator the process begins in late January. Regular douses of manure, delicate pruning, coaxing of the new shoots, managing pests, clearing the dead leaves and branches, cutting down last season’s productive branches, the farmer is constantly watching, understanding which of the branches offer no future for the next season.
All of this done in the pursuit of allowing a new cluster of shoots to grow, mature, develop and sprout a crop – in October. It takes all year before the new crop appears. Ten months of coaxing in the hope that a good crop will emerge.
Finally they arrive, but not as you expect them. They arrive in the form of a flower, delicate white beautifully fragrant flower. If I had to pick a beautiful coffee plant, it would be one adorned with these aromatic gems.
The farmer is happy because he knows his berries are but a scant two weeks away. The flowers dry out, becoming brown at the tips at first, then slowly they fall away. In their place, tiny pinheads emerge. These are the custodians of the future. Tiny green buds, these ghosts of the coffee bush flower is where the magic lies.
They grow in clusters the berries, small, tough, shy, emergent , resilient. That little pinhead evolves into what millions enjoy each morning.
But we’re barely half way there. It takes another month or two before they start turning color and yet sometimes it seems like there is no halfway point, one moment they are green, then overnight, red. Its that quicksilver nature I warned you about. And as soon as the red berries begin to emerge its picking season.
Through the rows they go, plucking the berries, testing each one for a level between firmness and tenderness that can only be assessed by an experienced touch and a keen eye. Green berries are picked too if they have grown to full size. Somehow the pickers can tell which ones will not make it to red on the branch but are ready to begin their transformation nonetheless to a cup of java.
They are gathered, by the bucketful until finally they are ready for the next stage.
Soon they are all lying on the floor of the sorting house, where the women begin to sift them. Measuring by eye and hand which ones are going to make it through and which ones literally didn’t make the grade. The best and the brightest (by colour – no magic beans here) then travel down the triangular chute, off to be pulped where our familiar friend begins to appear. Berry skins to one side growing in large piles, their destiny is to contribute to the next generation as they will be used as manure for the following year’s crop.
The successful ones though, the ones that will make it to the table are now revealed to the world in the form of the inner gift of the parchment, midway between berry and bean. That which so many of us crave each day, whether its house, dark roast, in a cappuccino or a tiramisu, with skim or whole milk. Sorting happens again, this time though quality is determined by physics. After the pulping the parchment which houses the bean is dunked into water, the highest grade beans, dense, heavy sink to the bottom. The proverbial chaff floats atop.
The graded parchment then travels to the drying bench where its stays covered up at night and in deference to a hint of rain. Water is the enemy at this point.
But each day under the direct sun of the equator the parchment dry. Assessed each day to ensure no moisture remains.
At this point a second culling happens. We begin to know the destiny of those to end up as house coffee, chicory and espresso’s. Divided into grades – one two, three and buni. The crinkly parchment reveal themselves winners and losers in the race they didn’t even know they were in.
Finally the farm journey is at an end. The parchment moves into the gunny bags ready to head out to market. In the hands of the miller they will be transformed from parchment to green bean and be classified yet again. By then it’s the familiar bean we all love, called AA, A, AB and so on.
That last step is to turn it into the deeply dark nutty brown bean we know. I’d tell you about it, but that’s someone else’s story.